Opinion » Ted Rall

America's Terrorist Ally

Uzbekistan's dictator makes Saddam look good


PHILADELPHIA-Who is more brutal, Saddam Hussein or Islam Karimov? Reasonable victims disagree. Saddam's goons electrocuted his political dissidents. Karimov, on the other hand, loots so much of his country's oil wealth that his state torturers don't have an electrical grid to draw upon. So his police torturers are forced to resort to medieval methods. They boil their "terrorist extremists"-businessmen who refuse to pay bribes-to death.

There's no question about which tyrant is more reviled. Saddam stole millions from the Iraqi treasury, yet he also spread around enough loot to build both a second-world infrastructure and an economic base of power among the Sunnis who amount to about 40 percent of the population. Karimov, absolute ruler of Uzbekistan since the 1991 Soviet collapse, is a glutton whose personal motto echoes David Bowie's old promos for MTV: too much is never enough.

Uzbekistan, a major player in the Caspian Sea energy sweepstakes, is theoretically poised to become an economic success story. It is one of the world's largest producers of natural gas and possesses large untapped reserves of crude oil. As the republic with Central Asia's largest city-Tashkent has the region's only bonafide international airport and even its own subway system-its strategic importance extends beyond the fact that it has common borders with all of the other "stans." But, unlike Saddam's Iraq, every cent generated by Uzbekistan's vast resources goes straight into Islam Karimov's pocket. His parsimony extends even to his thuggish militsia (military police): Rather than pay them a realistic salary, he grants them free reign to coerce, rob, jail and even murder at will. Not only do the militsia pay for themselves, their lawless behavior ensures loyalty. Every cop knows that his neighbors would kill him were Karimov to disappear.

Uzbekistan has a politically and ethnically diverse population comprising Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kazakhs and even Bukharan Jews. While it's common to see women wearing miniskirts on the streets of such secular urban centers as Khiva and Samarkand, the rural Ferghana Valley is home to a fundamentalist brand of Islamism reminiscent of the Taliban. But all Uzbekistanis have something in common. It doesn't matter whether you talk to a guerilla fighter for the radical Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a prostitute playing the bar at the Tashkent Sheraton or a kid hawking sodas at a bazaar: Everyone hates Karimov and everyone hates his militsia, a force whose presence is so intimidating that people plan their itineraries to avoid checkpoints and police stations where they'll be robbed or worse.

The full force of Uzbekistan's outlaw police fell upon anti-government rioters shouting "freedom" and demanding free elections and an end to official corruption in the Ferghana Valley city of Andizhan on May 13. Although Karimov now claims that police acted independently, the UK Independent reports, "He was in command of the situation having flown to Andizhan from the capital Tashkent and almost certainly personally authorized the use of...deadly force."

The paper wrote: "The crowds, it has been established, were mown down by powerful coaxial 7.62mm machine guns mounted on two Russian-built BTR-80 armored personnel carriers. Such cannons can unleash 2,000 rounds, barely pausing for breath before they need to be reloaded. A military helicopter was used for reconnaissance purposes and Uzbek troops armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles opened fire on the demonstrators creating a deadly field of fire with the BTR-80s from which there was no escape. The soldiers made sure they had done their work well. After the shooting had finished they went from body to body delivering 'control shots' to the back of people's heads and scoured the town's streets for survivors to finish off."

The bloodletting followed Karimov's observation that ex-president Askar Akayev's order not to fire on demonstrators was the fatal error that led to his ouster in Kyrgyzstan.

Karimov claims 32 Uzbek militsia and 137 civilians were killed in the disturbance, numbers belied by the local coroner's own numbering system. "In the end hundreds of bodies-including those of women and children-filled the square," said the Associated Press. Human rights groups say the real death count is between 500 and 1,000.

Bush administration officials, so strident when promoting liberation through regime change in Iraq, Ukraine and, ironically, when Islamists overthrew the democratically-elected Kyrgyz president-have downplayed the Uzbek massacre. "After 9/11," explains Newsweek, "the Bush administration established a strategic partnership with Karimov, plunking down $500 million for a military base in southern Uzbekistan in preparation for operations in Afghanistan and paying $60 million or more a year in military aid and training."

The Bushies were aware of Karimov's horrific record back in 2001. That year's Human Rights Watch report on Uzbekistan put its "conservative estimate" of Uzbek political prisoners at 7,000. According to HRW: "Prison guards systematically beat prisoners with wooden and rubber truncheons and exacted particularly harsh punishment on those convicted on religious charges, subjecting them to additional beatings ... Torture remained endemic in pretrial custody as well." George W. Bush didn't mind. He accorded Karimov all the honors of a full state visit to the White House shortly thereafter.

How can the United States claim to be fighting a war on terrorism when its biggest allies are terrorists themselves?