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A series of suicide bombings and shoot-outs between the
police and the Islamist opponents of Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s authoritarian President, have put the U.S. in a
quandary over how to respond to the crackdown that’s sure to follow. The U.S. relies on Uzbek military installations for its operations in
Afghanistan, but human rights groups say that Karimov has
used his allegiance to President Bush’s “war on terror” as a
cover for political repression.

For Karimov, the unrest is a mixed blessing. On the one
hand, the attacks indicate that his police state has not
succeeded in crushing the opposition completely – it may be
banned, but it is still capable of mounting successful
terrorist attacks, as it did in 1999. Back then, the Islamic
Movement of Uzbekistan — a group designated as a terrorist
organization by U.S. and Britain — was blamed.

This time, the government is suggesting, less plausibly,
that Hizb ut-Tahrir –- a group advocating the formation of
Islamist state in Uzbekistan and the rest of Central Asia
— is the mastermind behind the bombings. As the Guardianreports:

“Hizbut Tahrir denied any involvement in the blast and is
very protective of its peaceful image. And while the U.S.
State Department has showed concern over HT’s increasingly
hardline rhetoric, Washington and London have yet to declare
them a terrorist group. It does seem baffling that, under
the omniscient controls of a police state, they can turn
from leaflets and prayer to launching a small war on the
Uzbek authorities quite so quickly.”

The good news for Karimov is that the attacks give him a
pretext to continue his brutal crackdown on political
opponents like members of Hizb ut-Tahrir , without the U.S.
and others complaining too loudly. In a

report released this
week, Human Rights Watch argues that Karimov’s “campaign of
religious persecution has resulted in the arrest, torture,
public degradation, and incarceration in grossly inhumane
conditions of an estimated 7,000 people.”

The U.S. State Department, in its country profile
of Uzbekistan, says that:

“Uzbekistan is not a democracy and does not
have a free press. Many opponents of the government have
fled, and others have been arrested. The government severely
represses those it suspects of Islamic extremism…With few
options for religious instruction, some young Muslims have
turn to underground extremist Islamic movements. The police
force and the intelligence service use torture as a routine
investigation technique. The government has begun to bring
to trial some officers accused of torture…The government has
granted amnesty to approximately 2000 political and
nonpolitical prisoners over the past 2 years. In 2002 and
the beginning of 2003 the government has arrested fewer
suspected Islamic extremists than in the past. Finally, in a
move welcomed by the international community, the Government
of Uzbekistan ended prior censorship, though the media
remain tightly controlled.”

Before the bombings, Uzbekistan was bracing for a
possible withdrawal of

50 million dollars of U.S. aid as punishment for its
poor human rights record. The European Bank for
Reconstruction and Development has also considered cutting
off aid unless Uzbekistan makes progress, which Uzbek
officials, pointing to changes in the country’s criminal
code that punish the use of torture, say it has. The EBRD will
issue its decision on whether Uzbekistan qualifies for aid
in April.

The U.S. government is due to come out with an annual
review of Uzbekistan’s human rights record in April as well
— progress on which is tied to aid eligibility. Karimov’s opponents are suspicious of the timing of the attacks, so close to international reviews of Uzbekistan’s human rights record, and some who have suggested that the government
itself may have masterminded the attacks to deflect
international criticism.

The Uzbek government has been quick to draw comparisons between the recent attacks and those targeted at U.S. troops and
allies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Terrorism is terrorism, they argue. At least 42 people have died in the wave of attacks
that began over the weekend. Several female suicide-bombers
in the capital blew themselves up at a bazaar in the capital,
Tashkent, while in another incident up to 20 suspected

blew themselves up during an run-in with the
police. Increased police presence, following the attacks,
may not necessarily improve the situation, since, as the BBC reports, “all of the attacks seem to
be directed at police targets and now there are lone
officers dotted around Tashkent’s streets, highly visible
and vulnerable to attack.”

One big reason the U.S. is unlikely to withdraw aid is
its interests in Uzbekistan’s neighbor: Afghanistan. There
are hundreds of U.S. troops using Uzbekistan’s military
bases for U.S. operations in Afghanistan. The U.S. says that
the attacks point to the necessity of further U.S.-Uzbek
military cooperation.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has offered U.S.
help in the investigation of the attacks in a telephone call
to Uzbekistan’s Foreign Minister Soquid Safayev. The White
House spokesman

Scott McClellan said that:

“These attacks only strengthen our resolve
to defeat terrorists wherever they hide and strike, working
in close cooperation with Uzbekistan and our other partners
in the global war on terror.”

Karimov gained the post of First Party Secretary in 1989 in what was then
Soviet Uzbekistan, and he has refused
to relinquish his power ever since. Just as Karimov
successfully insulated the republic from the political
reforms of the Gorbachev era, opposition has not figured
much in the politics of independent Uzbekistan.
Around 88 percent of the republic’s population is
Muslim, mostly Sunni. Karimov’s secular regime brands pretty
much all of the religious opposition as “Wahhabis” —
regardless of whether they are or not. The ban on groups
such as Hizb ut-Tahrir also suggests that Karimov considers
Islamic parties the most serious threat to his monopoly on
power. Following the bombings,

Karimov said that:

“If we look back at the events one by one
and try to draw a lesson, I would say that all these attacks
were very well planned in advance and the preparation, in
all aspects, was from outside. The support came from
extremist centers which have large funds and opportunities.”

Karimov singled out Hizb ut-Tahrir — a group formed in
Jerusalem in 1952 — as the prime suspect. Hizb ut-Tahrir
advocates the formation of an Islamic state — the
caliphate, which would include the Central Asian state, in
which “all of life’s affairs in society are administered
according to the
Shari’ah rules
.” The group’s London representatives have
condoned the attacks and rejected Karimov’s charges.

The IMU, which has carried out the 1999 bombings, would
have been a more believable suspect, but years of government
persecution, as well as the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan,
have severely weakened the group. As the Economist points out:

“…the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, grew
during the 1990s. Its initial objective was the overthrow of
Mr Karimov…and the replacement of his regime with an Islamic
republic—though it has since broadened its objectives to
seeking Islamic government across all of Central Asia. In
1999 and 2000, it made armed incursions into Uzbekistan from
its bases in Tajikistan and northern Afghanistan, where it
was believed to have 2,000 fighters by 2000. The group is
thought to have been largely wiped out during the
American-led intervention in Afghanistan in 2001. It lost
its main sponsor, the Taliban, while its bases were
destroyed and its leader, Juma Namangani, was reportedly
killed during the battle for the Afghan city of Kunduz.
Remnants of the IMU are believed to be scattered across the
border area between Afghanistan and Tajikistan.”

If Hizb ut-Tahrir was not involved in the bombings as it
insists and the IMU too weakened and scattered to carry them
out, that leaves the possibility of involvement by a third
party. An article in

EurasiaNet, has emphasized that some of the suicide
bombings took place near a bazaar and a store — places
where the police regularly and openly elicit bribes. As

EurasiaNet reports:

“There is a growing belief among Uzbeks that
the attacks constitute a reprisal against a rapacious police
force. Fueling this view is the fact that most of the
attacks to date have targeted police officers, while
avoiding strikes at government buildings and other strategic

At bazaars
across Uzbekistan, police brutality is on display every day.
This EurasiaNet correspondent was at the Chorsu bazaar in
Tashkent recently, observing numerous police shakedowns of
vendors, many of whom operate illegally to evade punitive
government taxation. These shakedowns were conducted in
plain view. In one particularly troubling incident, a police
officer viciously kicked an elderly woman who did not move
out of the way fast enough.”

Uzbekistan’s lack of democratic progress and economic
reform as well as its strategic importance are reflective of
the foreign policy dilemmas the U.S. faces in Central Asia
as a whole. Since the end of the Cold War, traditional U.S.
military bases in Germany, Italy, and Japan are fading in
importance as access to bases in Central Asia are becoming
key to the U.S.’s “war on terror.” As the San Francisco Chronicle reports:

“The policy has involved not just resorting
to military action, or the threat of action, but
constructing an arc of new facilities in such places as
Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Qatar and Djibouti that the Pentagon
calls “lily pads.” They are seen not merely as a means of
defending the host countries — the traditional Cold War
role of such installations — but as jumping-off points for
future “preventive wars” and military missions.”

Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz says that
these military installations:

“…send a message to everybody, including
strategically important countries like Uzbekistan, that we
have a capacity to come back in and will come back in —
we’re not just going to forget about them.”

Whether the U.S. is going to forget about Uzbekistan’s
political repression — which has arguably fuelled support
for extremist Islamist groups opposed to Karimov — is an
open question.

As David Lewis, the head of Human Rights
Watch’s Central Asia Project says:

“The regime has been given too much of a
free ride because it is seen as a partner against terrorism
and Islamist extremism…But engagement with it must become
much more critical in order to stem the serious, potentially
long-term damage being done to the West’s credibility in
this predominantly Muslim region.”


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