Bush, Aliyev talk about Iran, democracy, Iraq
WASHINGTON, Apr 29 (Reuters) President George W Bush hosted the leader of Azerbaijan for the first time at the White House in recognition of the ex-Soviet state's growing importance to the United States as an ally in a region that includes Iran and oil.
Azeri President Ilham Aliyev was elected in 2003, but the United States had waited to invite him, citing concerns about democratic freedoms in Azerbaijan.
Analysts have noted that the timing of the visit coincides with rising tensions between the United States and Iran, which borders Azerbaijan.
The two leaders discussed Iran Yesterday, and Bush said he assured Aliyev that US intentions were to resolve the dispute over Iran's nuclear ambitions ''diplomatically and peacefully.'' Aliyev had said earlier this week Azerbaijan would not participate in any military action against Iran.
Moving forward on democratic reforms were also high on the agenda.
''We talked about the need to, for the world to see a modern Muslim country that is able to provide for its citizens, that understands that democracy is the wave of the future,'' Bush said.
''And I appreciate your leadership, Mr. President.'' Aliyev, seated next to Bush in the Oval Office after their meeting, said he was grateful for US help in promoting the democratic process. ''We share the same values,'' he said.
''In general, I'd like to say that I'm very satisfied with my visit and I consider this as instrumental in the future development of Azerbaijan as a modern, secular, democratic country,'' Aliyev said.
Azerbaijan is one of two majority Muslim countries that sent troops to Iraq as part of the US-led coalition, and Bush thanked Aliyev for those efforts.
Bush's approval ratings have sunk to the lows of his presidency partly due to high gasoline prices and growing public discontent with the Iraq war.
The United States values Caspian Sea oil pumped from and through Azerbaijan as an alternative to supplies from the West Asia Russia.
''We are very grateful for the leadership of the United States in promotion of the energy security issues in the region, in assisting us to create a solid transportation infrastructure which will allow to develop full-scale Caspian oil and gas reserves and to deliver them to the international markets,'' Aliyev said.
Cory Welt, Russia and Eurasia program deputy director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in an analysis that ''Azerbaijan should be courted. It provides new sources of oil and gas to western markets, and is poised to transport even greater energy flows from Central Asia across the Caspian.'' ''With regard to transit security, Azerbaijan is arguably more important than its Caucasus neighbors Georgia and Armenia, sharing borders with Russia, Iran, and Turkey and, via the Caspian Sea, Central Asia,'' he said.
REUTERS SRS RK0440