Mongolia united as U.S. 'strategic partner'

By David R. Sands

Mongolia considers the United States a "strategic partner" in the war on terrorism and will not pull out of the U.S.-led security operation in Iraq, Mongolian President Natsagiin Bagabandi said in an interview yesterday.

The president said Mongolia's cliffhanger June 27 elections, which produced an almost evenly divided parliament, would not affect the country's deployment of about 130 troops to Iraq, the third rotation of Mongolian forces in the country since the war concluded last year.

"So far in our country, there is no disagreement among the political parties over dispatching our forces to Iraq, and there is no disagreement on our strong relationship with the United States," Mr. Bagabandi said, speaking through an interpreter with editors and reporters of The Washington Times.

President Bush noted Mongolia's contribution to the postwar Iraq mission in an Oval Office meeting with the Mongolian president yesterday afternoon.

With several nations in the U.S.-led coalition either ending or scaling back their deployments to Iraq, White House spokesman Scott McClellan cited Mongolia as one piece of proof that the coalition still enjoys strong international support.

Mongolia's deployment in Iraq is more than twice the size of the Philippine contingent of 51 troops, which Manila said this week it was recalling ahead of schedule after an Islamist militant group threatened to execute a Filipino hostage.

With just 2.5 million people in a landlocked nation twice the size of Texas, Mongolia in recent years has pursued an unexpectedly prominent and activist foreign policy, cultivating relations with neighboring China and Russia while preserving strong military and political ties with the United States.

In addition to its Iraq deployment, Mongolia took part in peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan and is helping train Afghanistan's fledgling army. Mr. Bagabandi spoke yesterday of increasing cooperation with NATO's Partnership for Peace.

The Mongolian president said the United States has been a consistent supporter of democratic pluralism in his country, a vast plateau of desert and steppe where grazing cattle, sheep and camels vastly outnumber the human population.

Mongolia in May was named one of the first 16 recipients of the Bush administration's Millennium Challenge Account program, which targets U.S. aid to developing countries that have adopted strong economic policies and a respect for the rule of law.

In the interview, Mr. Bagabandi said the U.S. war on global terrorism was one that even remote countries such as his could not sit out.

"We understand that not only the United States but all of humankind is threatened by terrorism," he said. "Terrorism does not recognize borders, it does not make any distinction between big and small countries.

"If Mongolia succeeds in keeping our 1.5 million square kilometers of territory immune from terrorists [!], we would consider that a significant contribution to the war on terror."

He said the Mongolian mission to Iraq, which includes soldiers, construction specialists and medical personnel, was not an aggressive action but one designed to help rebuild the country and "stop terrorism on Iraqi territory."

Mr. Bagabandi's U.S. visit comes at a time of unexpected political uncertainty back home.

The president said he hoped to increase U.S. direct investment and tourism in his country. His trip includes a stop in Denver, where he said he wants to meet with American firms about developing Mongolia's mineral resources.

Despite U.S. moves to reduce its troop levels in South Korea and review American military deployments worldwide, Mr. Bagabandi said there have been frequent high-level military contacts between U.S. and Mongolian officials.

"We do not have many concerns about the U.S. commitment to our region. Our main purpose is to increase the fruitful cooperation we now have on both sides," he said.

[Source: Washington Times, Us, 16Jul04]

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