on the silk road

Museum of Tolerance Hosts Azeri Press Conference, Stifles Reporter’s Questions

LOS ANGELES–A press conference by Azeri parliamentarians at the Museum of Tolerance on the Georgian conflict and its threat to western oil pipelines in the Caucasus was cut short Friday when this reporter was censored after asking about Azerbaijan’s growing belligerence towards Armenia.

The media briefing on the South Caucasus was hosted by the Simon Wiesenthal Center at its Los Angeles-based Museum of Tolerance. It featured a 5-member parliamentary delegation from Azerbaijan, as well as a member from the Consulate of Georgia. Azerbaijan’s Consul General in Los Angeles was also in attendance.

When a question was asked by this Asbarez reporter regarding an August 8 statement by the Azeri Foreign Ministry saying Georgia’s attack on South Ossetia served as a precedent for resolving ethnic conflicts in the region, he was silenced, not only by members of the audience and the Azeri consular staff, which denied the incident, but also by Rabbi Cooper who prematurely ended the conference (others were slated to speak) to take a tour of the museum.

Incidentally, the Republic of Armenia’s Consul General in Los Angeles, Armen Liloyan, was not invited to the press briefing. “We have never received such an invitation,” he said, when asked why a representative from Armenia, a US partner in the Caucasus, sharing warm relations and strong ties to both the United States and the west as well as Russia, was not invited.

Asbarez contacted Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, for comments on the Center’s failure to invite a representative from the Republic of Armenia to the briefing. But Cooper could not be reached for comment and did not return calls.

Though the event was publicized as a briefing about the “implications of the Russian invasion of Georgia for the region and for oil and gas supplies globally,” it was more rhetoric than information. Throughout the briefing, one common theme was conveyed to the audience–that the conflict in Georgia was actually between Russia and the West.

“This is an offensive against the United States, American interests, and values,” remarked Asim Mollazada, the Azeri parliamentarian giving the first and only briefing.

“We said we would like to be a reliable ally of the United States,” he said, underscoring Azerbaijan’s centrality to US interests in the region.

Rabbi Cooper, who moderated the press conference, echoed most of Mollazada’s remarks in his praise for the two former soviet republics. Azerbaijan and Georgia, he boasted, were model republics in the region with their impeccable democratic track records

Asim Mollazada, Member of the Azerbaijani Parliament, showing the location of the pipeline as Rabbi Abraham Cooper, SWC associate dean, looks on.

Asim Mollazada, Member of the Azerbaijani Parliament, showing the location of the pipeline as Rabbi Abraham Cooper, SWC associate dean, looks on.

Mollazada, who is also the chairman of Azerbaijan’s Democratic Reform Party and a member of its parliament’s Foreign Relations Committee, warned that Russia’s advance into Georgia and the PKK sabotage of a section of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline are “evil” forces that threaten to derail the democratic progress of Azerbaijan and Georgia.

According to international human rights watchdogs, such as Human Rights Watch, Reporters without Boarders, and Amnesty International, neither Georgia nor Azerbaijan has proven to be a model of democracy in the region.

On January 6, tens of thousands of Georgians, claiming fraud and demanding a recount, took to the streets to protest the election victory of American-allied President Mikheil Saakashvili. Saakashvili called for snap elections in November after he imposed a state of emergency following a brutal police crackdown on peaceful demonstrators calling for his resignation. Saakashvili, whose government was criticized by Human Rights Watch for “crossing the line” in November, is now being accused of having enacted policies of ethnic cleansing in its breakaway province of South Ossetia, which it devastated in a bombing campaign that began on August 7th.

Meanwhile, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev has faced persistent criticism over his heavy-handed treatment of independent media and opposition parties.

According to Amnesty International, journalists in Azerbaijan “striving to expose the misuse of government power are increasingly living under the threat of politically motivated arrests, physical assault and even death…[and] are only free to express opinions that fall in line with government directives. Anyone daring to voice criticism of the authorities or to expose Azerbaijan’s enduring corruption problem faces an uncertain future.”

Furthermore, the BTC pipeline, which Mollazada emphasized was as an agent of stability and democratic development in the region, has allowed Aliyev to strengthen his heavy-handed grip over Azerbaijan’s government. In preparation for his reelection in October, Aliyev has been establishing a cult of personality by propping up billboards throughout the country, depicting his father, the late president Haydar Aliyev and himself in a manner reminiscent of the Stalinist Soviet Union and 1980s Iraq under Sadam Hussein.

Despite the reality on the ground, Mollazada insisted that the region’s oil pipelines “solve problems.”

“[The BTC pipeline] is a system of transferring ideas of liberty…our goal, our priority is to create a system of liberty and human rights,” he remarked. “If evil wins in Georgia, the system will go to the middle ages.”

During the truncated question and answer session, an inquiry was made regarding the effect the conflict would have on the world oil market. Mollazada took advantage of the opportunity to frame the message in a way where American interests were being held hostage to Russian aggression in the region.

“Now oil is not pumping and immediately you will see prices will jump,” Mollazada said, stating that American, European, and Israeli interests would only be secured if Azerbaijan was supported. “It is vitally important to the energy security of Israel and Europe.”

But Azerbaijan’s longstanding insistence to isolate Armenia from regional development projects, namely the BTC pipeline, and the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars Railway, have further jeopardized the security and stability of the region and harmed US and western interests in the South Caucasus.

In spite of the windfall profits from the US–and the west–facilitated by the BTC project, Azerbaijan continues to lobby the United States for foreign aid rather than using its oil-generated wealth to better humanitarian and infrastructural problems it faces. Instead it uses these profits to bolster its blockade of Armenia, increasing the need for US humanitarian support to that country, a US partner in the region and diplomatic bridge between the West and Russia as well as Iran.

Although the tense status quo in Karabakh has by and large held, Aliyev has been using petrodollars from the BTC pipeline to beef up the country’s military, purchasing armaments and vehicles from France, the United States and the former Warsaw Pact countries. The tremendous new oil wealth has allowed Aliyev to increase defense spending from $175 million in 2004 to $2 billion in 2008. According to a Stratfor analysis, “Azerbaijan’s armament now has many wondering if Baku is planning another conflict against a neighbor that has been cut out of the region’s recent energy wealth.”

Azerbaijan ethnically cleansed its Christian Armenian minority in a series of pogroms and massacres as the Soviet Union was collapsing, forcing the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave forced into Azerbaijan, to declare independence. Karabakh’s democracy movement, legal by the statutes of the Soviet Constitution, triggered a brutal military attack on the enclave by Azerbaijan, sparking a conflict that ended with a Russian brokered ceasefire in 1994 and de facto independence for Karabakh.

Last month, Rabbi Cooper visited Azerbaijan to meet with the Foreign Minister and a leading Muslim religious leader, according to an Azeri Press Agency report cited by Day.az on July 22. During his meeting with the Azeri cleric, Sheikh-ul-Islam Haji Allahshukur Pasha-zade, who two years ago called on Azerbaijani’s to prepare for a “jihad” against Armenians, Cooper reportedly described Azerbaijan as “a tolerant country, where everyone can practice his religion without any restrictions.” His remarks, published the next day in a Day.az interview, were in reference to the Jewish community in Baku.

In the interview, Rabbi Cooper went on to say that Azerbaijan should do more to “inform the US community in details about their country and especially about [the Nagorno-Karabakh] conflict. The United States are mostly well informed about the ‘genocide of Armenians.’ It would be good if Azerbaijanis held work for informing Americans about the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.”

In 2003, the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles was embroiled in controversy over its refusal to establish a permanent exhibit on the Armenian Genocide. Despite a six-day hunger strike by 14 young human rights activists, calls from thousands of Armenian Americans nationwide, a major story in the Los Angeles Times, and growing interest on the part of local, state, and federal lawmakers, the Museum of Tolerance only agreed to include references to the Armenian Genocide in various exhibits at the museum. The Museum still does not have a permanent exhibit on the Armenian Genocide.


American Jewish Committee to Lobby for Azeri Interests, Announces Director

BAKU (Asbarez)–The Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris, was in Baku Saturday where he told journalists at a press conference that his organization would lobby on behalf of Azerbaijan’s interests in the United States.

Harris was visiting Azerbaijan on the invitation of Azeri President Ilham Aliyev. During his two-day visit he met with the President, Foreign Minister, Prime Minister and other officials.

“[The] AJC has long appreciated the importance of Azerbaijan as an example of religious tolerance and a proven friend of the United States and Israel,” Harris said. “We valued this opportunity to learn more about this strong ally in a challenging and critical region. We look forward to sharing our views about Azerbaijan’s key role when we return to the United States.”

However, Harris’ remarks stand in stark contrast to significant documented evidence to the contrary. Azerbaijan’s numerous political as well as social human rights abuses both against its Azeri majority as well as its ethnic minorities, including Armenians and have been widely reported in US press as well as international human rights bodies.

But according to the Harris, “Azerbaijan is critical to Western energy security and to the avoidance of a potentially dangerous monopoly in the market for natural gas.” The South Caucusus, he explained, is witnessing a historic event in Georgia because the recent outbreak of fighting in South Ossetia is important not only for Georgia, but also the whole region, including Azerbaijan and its territorial integrity.

The AJC will lobby for the US Government to pay more attention to the work of the OSCE Minsk Group, mediating the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Harris said, adding “the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was the key issue of discussion during my visit to Baku. We will work to improve the OSCE Minsk Group’s mission in the settlement of the conflict.”

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which has yet to be resolved, is in danger of erupting as Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev continues to make louder calls for renewed war to “take back” Karabakh by force. Making the situation in Azerbaijan more tense is the growing uncertainty over the outcome of Azerbaijan’s upcoming Presidential elections, slated for October 15.

There is a definite cult of personality that is being established that threatens the viability of democratic development in Azerbaijan. Aliyev has been propping up billboards throughout the country, depicting his father, the late president Haydar Aliyev and himself in a manner reminiscent of the Stalinist Soviet Union and 1980s Iraq under Sadam Hussein.

Aliyev has faced persistent criticism over his heavy-handed treatment of independent media and opposition parties. Meanwhile, over a million Azeri refugees from the Karabakh Conflict still live in shantytowns and abandoned train carts. Human rights violations are at an all time high, as severe media restrictions continue to result in the imprisonment and torture of journalists and opposition activists. According to Eurasianet, Aliyev’s recent claims that his government allegedly oversaw the creation of 650,000 new jobs by the end of 2007 are not being received well by most of Azerbaijan’s population, which has yet to feel the affects of the country’s massive oil revenues.

With less than three months to go until elections are held in Azerbaijan, controversy is looming over President Ilham Aliyev’s failure to solve many of the country’s social ills. With Karabakh a major election issue in Azerbaijan, Aliyev has sought to exploit nationalist fervor surrounding the unresolved conflict to detract from his administrations failures at home. In recent months, he has been touring the country and delivering, publicly calling for a new war and threatening to take Karabakh back by force.

On June 26, Aliyev staged the country’s first military parade in 16 years, and announced his intentions to build a military industrial complex that would support a second round war with neighboring Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijan ethnically cleansed its Christian Armenian minority in a series of pogroms and massacres as the Soviet Union was collapsing, forcing the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave forced into Azerbaijan, to declare independence. Karabakh’s democracy movement, legal by the statutes of the Soviet Constitution, triggered a brutal military attack on the enclave by Azerbaijan, sparking a conflict that ended with a Russian brokered ceasefire in 1994.

Azerbaijan has been using petrodollars from the BTC pipeline to beef up its military, purchasing armaments and vehicles from France, the United States or the former Warsaw Pact. According to Stratfor, “Azerbaijan’s armament now has many wondering if Baku is planning another conflict against a neighbor that has been cut out of the region’s recent energy wealth.”

A renewed conflict would halt any possibility of Caspian energy reaching the west, and be a direct threat to U.S. and European interests in the region.

Following an unprecedented violation of the Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire by Azeri forces on March 5, Stratfor intelligence wrote in an analysis piece citing the growing threat to regional security of a richer and stronger Azerbaijan.

“Azerbaijan has grown stronger and richer following the 2006 completion of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline, which Western companies developed to feed oil to Europe,” it said. “The BTC led to a more pro-Western Azerbaijan, and the tremendous new wealth it generated has helped the country increase its defense spending from $175 million in 2004 to more than $1 billion at the start of 2008.” Azerbaijan’s military budget has since reached $2 billion.”

%u218Energy wealth has doubled Azerbaijan’s gross domestic product;Azerbaijan’s defense budget has jumped from just a few hundred million a year to a billion this past year,” Stratfor wrote earlier in 2007. “The country is arming itself, and neighboring Armenia is closely watching. The two countries have been deadlocked over the Azerbaijani secessionist region of Nagorno-Karabakh — a conflict that has flared into a war in the past. Azerbaijan’s armament now has many wondering if Baku is planning another conflict against a neighbor that has been cut out of the region’s recent energy wealth.”

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan’s longstanding insistence to isolate fellow US Ally Armenia, from regional development projects, namely the BTC pipeline, and the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars Ralway, have further jeopardized the security and stability of US interests in the South Caucasus.

During the planning stages of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, Azerbaijan pressured British Petroleum to bypass a more economic a commercially secure route that went through Armenia, a fellow US partner in the region. In 2003, New York Congressman Joseph Crowley (NY-07) criticized the routing of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil and gas pipeline during the House International Relations Committee markup of the reauthorization for the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC). The Committee was considering the OPIC’s application for political risk insurance in connection with construction of the BTC pipeline.

At the markup’sCongressman Crowley stated: “American taxpayers are being asked to help cover hundreds of million of dollars in increased costs for the BTC pipeline route that would bypass the more economic and commercially viable route through Armenia. If the Caucasus region’sin my opinion’sis to move forward’swe must ensure that all countries move forward together at the same time. Choosing favorites in the Caucasus will not promote regional stability’seconomic integration’sand peace.”

Despite all this, Harris assured Azerbaijan’s leadership that his organization would work for the interests of Azerbaijan in the United States.

“As your friends, we will try to do something for this but it mostly depends on Azerbaijan itself. Americans shouldn’t only know Azerbaijan as an energy-rich country but also as a country that made important contributions to peacekeeping efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said, promising to take steps towards the strengthening of relations between Azerbaijan and the United State.

“We will work to improve the relations between the United States and Azerbaijan,” he said. “We will also pay attention to Americans’ education [of Azerbaijan] to convey to them the basic knowledge about Azerbaijan and to inform the political circles and U.S. presidential contenders about Azerbaijan.”

Meanwhile, the Azerbaijan Press Agency reported on Monday that the Izmir-based Azerbaijan Culture Center has began a petition drive demanding that the Turkish-Armenian border remain closed until the withdrawal of Armenians from the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.

The head of the Center, Jamal Mammadkhanoglu, underscored that the borders should not open without an “Armenian withdrawal from Azerbaijani lands.”

“Turkey has to maintain its embargo against Armenia for that,” he said. “Otherwise, Azerbaijan has no other option but to liberate its lands through military force.”

Azerbaijan and Turkey must unite as one nation, like “a clenched fist,” he said.

Russia, Georgia green light Turkey-sponsored Caucasian union
August 15, 2008, 5:41 am
Filed under: Russia, South Caucasus, The Silk Road, Turkey | Tags: , , , ,
From the Hurriyet


Russia and Georgia have given the green light to Turkey’s proposal for a Caucasus alliance, as Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan met Thursday Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili a day after his meetings with the Russian president and prime minister. 
Russia, Georgia green light Turkey-sponsored Caucasian unionErdogan, accompanied by Foreign Minister Ali Babacan, arrived in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi to meet Saakashvili over the clashes in South Ossetia and Turkey’s proposal for a Caucasian stability forum.

Turkey wants to secure peace, and to form a cooperation platform which would serve to develop common stability in the region, Erdogan told a joint press conference with Saakashivili.

“We asked Georgia to participate in this platform. Our proposal for was also welcomed by Russia,” he added.

Erdogan also said Turkey supports Georgia’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, adding he would visit Azerbaijan to discuss the security of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline.

Erdogan and the accompanying delegation later left Tbilisi for Turkey.


The Turkish prime minister on Wednesday met with President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow where he underlined the “large importance” of regional solidarity.


Turkish and Russian foreign ministers would speed up efforts to develop the Stability and Cooperation Platform in the Caucasus suggested by Turkey, Erdogan said in Russia, adding Turkey and Russiaagreed to work together to develop the platform.

“We want it to conduce to an economic cooperation… We want it to lead to cooperation on regional peace and security,” he said.

“We also want this establishment to assume crisis management and seek solution in case of a problem in the region,” he added. Erdogan said the foreign ministers of the two countries would launch talks and develop the idea.

US warns Turkey over energy deal with Iran
August 15, 2008, 5:39 am
Filed under: The Silk Road, Turkey | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

From the Financial Times

By Andrew Ward in Washington and Alex Barker in Ankara

The US on Wednesday warned Turkey not to strike an energy deal with Iran that undermined diplomatic efforts to halt Tehran’s nuclear programme, on the eve of a visit to Ankara by Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, the Iranian president.

A deal to increase Iranian natural gas supplies to Turkey is expected to form the centrepiece of the visit, giving Mr Ahmadi-Nejad a much-needed diplomatic boost as he attempts to defy pressure to isolate Iran.

The US state department said it expected Ankara to avoid a deal that would harm diplomatic efforts but made clear its opposition to any agreement that eased pressure on Tehran.

“Such a deal by Turkey with Iran would send the wrong message at a time when the Iranian regime has repeatedly failed to comply with its UN Security Council and IAEA obligations,” the state department said.

The meeting with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, marks Mr Ahmadi-Nejad’s first bilateral visit to a Nato member. Mr Erdogan is seeking to strengthen energy ties with Tehran, step up co-operation against Kurdish separatists and intensify Turkey’s efforts to defuse the dispute over Iran’s nuclear programme.

The centrepiece of the visit is likely to be progress on an energy initiative that Ankara and Tehran launched last year. That could see a deal signed to increase Iranian natural gas supply and set rates for the transportation of Turkmen gas across Iran.

The US state department said Washington was opposed to any country deepening economic ties with Tehran. “This is not the time to do business with Iran,” it said.

“It is time for the international community, including our ally Turkey, to begin considering additional measures to pressure Iran.”

Ankara and Tehran have good relations, particularly where interests on energy and tackling Kurdish militant groups overlap.

But the standoff over Iran’s nuclear ambitions has tested the relationship. Turkey wants to prevent Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon but is concerned about the risk of military confrontation.

“Increased tensions between Iran and the US will put Turkey in a very awkward position,” Ihsan Dagi, professor at Middle Eastern Technical University, said. “After the Iraq war, [Turkey] learned it could no longer remain indifferent to regional developments.”

One western diplomat welcomed Ankara’s “useful” engagement over Iran’s nuclear programme but said Iran “has yet to request that Turkey acts as a formal mediator”.

Turkey, which is reliant on energy imports, is keen to diversify its supplies and establish itself as a hub between Europe and the energy rich nations to its east.

Washington and some EU states have expressed deep concerns over its energy ties to Iran, which pave the way for Iranian and Turkmen gas to be transported to Europe via the planned Nabuko pipeline from eastern Turkey to Austria.

Gorbachev Says Georgia Started Conflict


(CNN) — Georgian leaders may be blaming Russia for the conflict raging in South Ossetia, but former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev said Thursday “there is no doubt” that Georgia provoked the clash.

Mikhail Gorbachev told CNN's Larry King that Russia called extra troops into Georgia to stem violence.

Mikhail Gorbachev told CNN’s Larry King that Russia called extra troops into Georgia to stem violence.

Gorbachev told CNN’s Larry King that Russia moved additional forces into South Ossetia in response to “devastation” in the South Ossetia city of Tskhinvali.

“This was the use of sophisticated weapons against a small town, against a sleeping people. This was a barbaric assault,” said Gorbachev, the last president of the former Soviet Union.

But Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who also appeared on CNN’s “Larry King Live” Thursday, said he was “profoundly shocked” that Mikhail Gorbachev would use a television appearance “for basically vindicating lies and deceptions.”

Last week, Georgia said it launched an operation into South Ossetia after a cease-fire was broken with artillery fire from Russian separatists that killed 10 people including civilians and peacekeepers. It accused Russia, which also has peacekeepers in the region, of backing the separatists.

Hours later, the Russian news agency Interfax reported that Russian authorities said 10 Russian peacekeepers had been killed and 30 wounded in an attack by Georgians.

“Western television didn’t show what happened in Tskhinvali,” Gorbachev said. “Only now they’re beginning to show some pictures of the destruction. So this looks to me like it was a well-prepared project. And with any outcome, they wanted to put the blame on Russia.”

He called Georgia’s claims that Russia is attempting to dismantle its democracy “all lies from beginning to end.”

In response, Saakashvili expressed disappointment with the sentiments from Gorbachev, who he said he once respected.

“This is the man, Mr. Gorbachev, who helped to, you know, bring down KGB kingdom. And he is the one who is, you know, justifying what the KGB people are doing right now in my country,” Saakashvili said.

“Shame on him. Shame on you, Mr. Gorbachev, for perpetuating the very regime you helped to defeat and you fought against as the head of the Soviet Union.”

Gorbachev also said the United States is jeopardizing its fragile relationship with Russia by backing Georgia. Video Watch Gorbachev discuss U.S.-Russia relations »

“There is a chance for our two countries to develop a new agenda for cooperation so as to promote both U.S. and Russia interests, and the interests of other countries, and the interests of stability, particularly in the hotspots in different continents,” said Gorbachev, who won the Nobel Peace Price in 1990. 


Yerevan Hopes For Quick End To Georgia Fighting

YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–President Serzh Sarkisian called on Thursday a rare meeting of Armenia’s National Security Council to reiterate his government’s concerns about the Russian-Georgian military conflict and praise international efforts to resolve it.

Sarkisian also reaffirmed Yerevan’s stated neutrality in the week-long dispute that will likely have far-reaching ramifications for regional security. Still, he seemed to blame Georgia for the outbreak of fighting in South Ossetia that provoked a harsh Russian retaliation. 

Read Article

Says ‘Forget’ Georgian Territorial Integrity, US-Russian Tensions Mount

MOSCOW (Combined Sources)–Russia’s foreign minister declared Thursday that the world “can forget about” Georgia’s territorial integrity, and officials said Russia targeted military infrastructure and equipment — including radars and patrol boats at a Black Sea naval base and oil hub.

Russia’s president met in the Kremlin with the leaders of Georgia’s two separatist provinces — a clear sign that Moscow could absorb the regions. And the comments from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov appeared to come as a challenge to the United States, where President Bush has called for Russia to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia.”

“One can forget about any talk about Georgia’s territorial integrity because, I believe, it is impossible to persuade South Ossetia and Abkhazia to agree with the logic that they can be forced back into the Georgian state,” Lavrov told reporters.

Bush Sends Troops with Aid

The White House said it would ignore the comment, while President George W. Bush sent American troops to Georgia on Wednesday to oversee a “vigorous and ongoing” humanitarian mission, in a direct challenge to Russia’s display of military dominance over the region. His action came after Russian soldiers moved into two strategic Georgian cities in what he and Georgian officials called a violation of the cease-fire Russia signed the day before.

Bush demanded that Russia abide by the cease-fire and withdraw its forces or risk its place in “the diplomatic, political, economic and security structures of the 21st century.” It was his strongest warning yet of potential retaliation against Russia over the conflict.

On a day when the White House evoked emotional memories of the cold war, a senior Pentagon official said the relief effort was intended “to show to Russia that we can come to the aid of a European ally, and that we can do it at will, whenever and wherever we want.” At a minimum, American forces in Georgia will test Russia’s pledge to allow relief supplies into the country; they could also deter further Russian attacks, though at the risk of a potential military confrontation.

in Georgia, President Mikheil Saakashvili interpreted the aid operation as a decision to defend Georgia’s ports and airports, though Bush administration and Pentagon officials quickly made it clear that would not be the case. A senior administration official said, “We won’t be protecting the airport or seaport, but we’ll certainly protect our assets if we need to.”Meanwhile, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was headed to Georgia to ask the U.S. ally to to sign a cease-fire agreement with Russia that includes apparent concessions to Moscow but preserves Georgian borders, a U.S. official said Thursday.

Poland Signs Missile Deal With US

Meanwhile, Poland finally agreed on Thursday to host elements of U.S. global anti-missile system on its territory after Washington improved the terms of the deal amid the Georgia crisis. The preliminary deal was signed by deputy Polish Foreign Minister Andrzej Kremer and U.S. chief negotiator John Rood. It still needs to be endorsed by the Polish parliament.

Washington says the interceptors and a radar in the Czech Republic would form part of a global “missile shield” protecting the United States and its allies from long range missiles that could in the future be fired by Iran or groups such as al-Qaeda. Russia, however, had warned the west that it would regard such a move as a direct threat to its national security.

“We have crossed the Rubicon,” Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said just before the deal was signed. “We have finally got understanding of our point of view that Poland, being a crucial partner in NATO and an important friend and ally of the United States, must also be safe.”

Officials said the deal included a U.S. declaration that it will aid Poland militarily in case of a threat from a third country and that it would establish a permanent U.S. base on Polish soil in a symbolic gesture underlining the alliance.

“We are comfortable that we negotiated a strong agreement,” Rood said. “It elevates our security relationship to a new level.”

If everything goes to schedule, the interceptor base would be ready by around 2012, officials have said. The Czechs have already signed an agreement to host the radar although parliament there must yet ratify it.

Russia Vehemently Opposes

Russia has vehemently opposed placing the shield installations in central Europe, saying they would threaten its security and upset the post-Cold War balance of power in Europe.

Moscow has threatened to take retaliatory steps against Poland and the Czech Republic, its former reluctant vassals who are now part of the European Union and NATO.

In the face of Russian opposition, Tusk had argued he could not agree to the shield unless the United States agreed to boost Warsaw’s air defenses and enhance mutual military cooperation.

Russia’s military action against Georgia strengthened the argument, Tusk said on Tuesday, ahead of the talks this week.

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski played down the impact of the events in Georgia on the deal, apparently hoping to soften any criticism from Moscow.

In the first sign of Moscow’s displeasure, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday canceled a planned trip to Warsaw in September, Polish diplomats said.

The deal, if approved by parliaments in Prague and Warsaw, will escalate the recent diplomatic row between Russia and the United States.

Washington hopes the shield might persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear program, although Teheran says it wants to develop nuclear energy only to generate electricity and not to make nuclear weapons.

Tensions Mount

In Washington, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he saw no need to invoke American military force in the war between Russia and Georgia but warned that U.S.-Russian relations could suffer lasting damage if Moscow doesn’t retreat.

“The United States spent 45 years working very hard to avoid a military confrontation with Russia,” said Gates. “I see no reason to change that approach today.”

The latest developments presented a huge challenge to the EU-sponsored cease-fire agreement designed to end seven days of fighting. The accord had envisioned Russian and Georgian forces returning to their original positions.

Lavrov on Wednesday also sent a decisive message to the United States, but saying that the US must choose between its “real partnership” with Russia and what he called the US’s “special project” of Georgia, reported the Pravda newspaper.

“We realize and everyone writes about that Georgia today is a special project of the US. We understand that the US worries about the fate of this project,” the minister added. “But here we have either the notion of prestige about this ‘virtual project’ or partnership, which requires collective actions to be taken,” the minister said.

“The Russian Armed Forces and the Russian peacemakers have orders from the Supreme Commander-in-Chief–the president of Russia–to observe all combat laws. Civilians must be protected against infringements of human life and dignity. We will look into every message saying that it is taking place and we will not let this happen,” Lavrov said.

He also said that in assessing the recent developments, the US was neglecting to condemn Georgia for bombing S. Ossetia and leveling its capital Tskhinvali.

About 100 Russian investigators continue to work in the capital of South Ossetia, which was virtually leveled as a result of the Georgian aggression. The officers are investigating the murder of Russian citizens and Russian peacemakers.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ordered the gathering of concrete evidence to prove that the Georgian authorities had committed acts of genocide against the citizens of South Ossetia.