Kazakhstan FM: If Iraq Doesn't Disarm, U.S. Can Use Our Airports

ALMATY, KHAZAKHSTAN - Kazakhstan believes that Iraq should be given a last chance to divest itself of its weapons of mass destruction; but if it spurns that chance this Central Asian republic will be ready to provide its air space and its airports to support a military operation against Baghdad.

This was made clear here Thursday night by the Kazhak foreign minister, Kasimjomart Tokaev in a conversation with Haaretz. The minister was guest of honor earlier at a dinner given by the visiting Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations and the local Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, at the close of an inter-faith 'Conference on Peace and Accord'.

Tokaev said the U.S. had been "very persuasive" in adducing evidence against Saddam Hussein. "If it is indeed proven that they have WMD, there is no justification for the existence of this regime."

Kazakhstan opened its air space and provided ground services for allied air forces during the campaign against Al-Qaida in Afghanistan last year.

Kazakhstan's successful divestment of its own nuclear capability, the foreign minister said, could serve as a guide to the Iraqi people after the confrontation ends and a new government takes over in Baghdad. "It is very important for the leadership to explain to the people that the state can not only survive but prosper and succeed, after it has voluntarily disarmed."

It was important, too, he said, for the disarming state to receive international guarantees. Kazakhstan had received such guarantees, a year after its own disarmament, from all five permanent members of the Security Council.

Question: "How do you feel now about the way such guarantees to Turkey are being honored at this time...?

Tokaev: Turkey is a different case... I don't want to be drawn... After they had disarmed, and in large measure thanks to that action, the Kazhaks had been able to conclude treaties of "eternal friendship" with neighbors Russia, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, a formula that is unprecedented in international diplomacy. With China they signed a treaty of "friendship and good neighborliness."

"We are not a threat to any country, and we demonstrated flexibility, too, in resolving all our boundary disputes with all of our neighbors."

Kazakhstan, the world's ninth-largest country, now has juridicially recognized borders all around - a feat that the long-serving Tokaev takes personal pride in having meticulously negotiated.

The inter-faith 'Conference on Peace and Accord' that took place here during the day was intended, the minister said, as a "first step" in a much broader and more ambitious effort at dialogue between cultures. President Nursultan Nazarbaev believed Kazakhstan was uniquely placed to lead the world in this effort. He had invited Muslim Arab states to attend Thursday's conference alongside the Central Asian republics, Afghanistan, and the American Jewish leaders. "They couldn't come because of the Iraq crisis. If they do next time, we will surely have Israel, too."

Islam in Kazakhstan had never been extremist, he said. "Ours is a soft version of Sunnism...more a code of behavior than a religion." Orthodox Christianity, Catholicism and Judaism all lived freely in the country too.

"The Pope himself was surprised at how the Catholic church flourishes here."